GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Putin’s second ground war starts, but don’t get too excited things won’t change quickly

Last article’s critical question was whether the Russians would slowly build their offensive power or commit to an early offensive. The key points arguing against an immediate offensive were that the Russians, fresh from being defeated near Kiev, are still weak.  At the start of the invasion their forces were too small, poorly trained, lacked logistics support and key communications equipment. After six weeks of fighting they are even more depleted. Rebuilding a capable Russian offensive force will take time and to-date the Ukrainians have not demonstrated the capability to launch large scale offensives so the Russians have time on their side. Further, recent wet weather in eastern Ukraine hampers armoured vehicle movement.  

Reports of Russian ground offensives are starting to emerge and there is a good chance that they are launching a major offensive.  Heavy fighting is reported around Izium, pushing south and east indicating that this area is likely to be a staging area for a thrust.  Shelling and large attacks are reported on broad front especially on Rubizhne, Popasna, and Marinka.  The reported large attacks are an escalation and may represent a move from probing attacks towards a full-scale offensive. Although earlier than expected the area of activity predicted appears to be correct.

Elsewhere, Kharkov is being shelled and numerous cities throughout Ukraine have been bombed with long-range missiles including Lviv, Dnipro and Kramatorsk. The Russians continue to destroy the defenders of Mariupol and there is fighting around Kherson.  However, it seems that the Russian main effort is the ground offensive in the north-east from Luhansk and Izium toward Kramatorsk and Sloviensk. 

The last article predicted that the Russians would give themselves time to rebuild and that major offensive operations wouldn’t start until early-May and it is important to assess the potential impact of an early offensive on the war.

The last article also predicted that even a later, better prepared “offensive of this nature is unlikely to be effective”, and I stick by that assessment and believe that launching an offensive this early will only increase Russia’s military woes and lead more quickly to their military defeat.  In recent days, credible commentators like General’s Ben Hodge, Barry McCaffery and Mark Hertling have all made similar assessments of Russian military capability. 

Yesterday, think-tank the Institute of War stated that “The Russian offensive in the east is unlikely to be dramatically more successful than previous Russian offensives, but Russian forces may be able to wear down Ukrainian defenders or achieve limited gains”.   In this article it is useful to explain the reasons why military commentators believe that the Russian offensive is unlikely to gain much ground.  

First, the Ukrainians are fighting resolutely and with a high level of technical sophistication. Since 2014, the United States and the United Kingdom have invested heavily in building the ‘soft capabilities’ of the Ukrainian defence force. Ukrainian effectiveness is not just about high-tech missiles.  It is also based on something called ‘mission command’ doctrine, a way of fighting that NATO and allied armies use.  It involves giving commander’s giving their ‘force’ broad direction about objectives then allowing the individual leaders within their force to find the best way to achieve the objectives given to them.  

It is a difficult way to fight because it involves commanders being able to express their objectives clearly in way that doesn’t hamper initiative. Commanders also need to trust their subordinates to make decisions and deliver what is asked of them. Further, the whole organisation needs operational flexibility to quickly exploit success or mitigate failure.  The Germans have operated this way since World War One, and ‘mission command’ ideas were the basis of their World War Two, Blitzkrieg tactics. Since, probably the early 1990s other NATO armies started using this model and it is how over the last eight years the Ukrainians have been trained to fight.  It allows them to operate flexibly and effectively at a tactical level, for example the small groups of infiltrators that pushed forward and attacked the Russian column as it approached Kiev.  Making small attacks and ambushing Russian units.  The Ukrainians may not have the armour and artillery to mount large scale offensives, but at a tactical level they have demonstrated tactical superiority and are well placed to win a defensive battle. 

This is opposite to the way the Russians fight.  Fighting like this requires a high-level of trust that comes from training, motivation and a shared sense of mission.  A largely short-service army like Russia’s without a cadre of long-serving non-commissioned officers (the sergeants, corporals and warrant officers that make sure plans happen on the ground) simply does not have the time to produce relationships of trust. Instead, an army like this relies on detailed plans and set procedures.  If the situation changes suddenly, it is stuck unable to quickly change its plan.  

The second reason is ‘mass’, the Russians simply do not have the numbers.  Fighting in defence confers considerable advantages to the defender.  The defender knows the ground, has secure supply lines, is fighting from a fortified position, can set up obstacles like barbed wire but most importantly can coordinate a web of firepower.  From carefully planning and digging in machine guns or anti-tank missiles to accurately predicting artillery and mortar fire the defender is able to coordinate their firepower to makes sure it is brutally effective. 

A successful offensive requires that infantry assault defensive position and this requires two elements for success; motivation and numbers.  We know that individual Russian soldiers in this war lack motivation, so they are unlikely to press an assault.  

History shows that sometimes a smaller but more motivated force can be successful against superior numbers. British soldiers in the Falklands War pressed assaults against greater numbers and better weapons at both Goose Green and Mount Tumbledown. However, the British are long-serving professional soldiers and their training and spirit-de-corps provided motivation to keep advancing in the face of casualties and heavy Argentine defensive fire. 

Today’s Russian soldiers are far from the professional British soldiers that re-took the Falkland Islands in 1982. A significant portion of them are young men, conscripted immediately after their last year at high school into a brutal military system that provides minimal training and leadership.  Assaulting, motivated soldiers defending their homeland in prepared positions would be a tough task for professional soldiers let alone the Russians that we have seen in action to date.

Without motivated infantry the Russians need to rely on numbers, or ‘mass’ if they are to succeed.  And as we have discussed previously, the Russians simply do not have those numbers.  Even, with their Syrian ‘ring ins’ and reinforcements from around the Russian ‘Empire’ there is unlikely to be enough soldiers to mitigate this qualitative disadvantage.  The original invasion force was small and has now suffered lots of casualties, it has also suffered a number of moral sapping defeats it is unlikely to have the numbers to fight an intense offensive battle.

The attacker must compensate for the defence’s advantages and does this most often with firepower, and the Russians certainly have plenty of artillery.  However, a secret about war is that artillery’s main role is not killing soldiers.  Its actual role is to cover movement, or to suppress the defenders and allow an attacking force to get close to the enemy.  Dug in soldiers are almost impossible to kill with artillery, look at Mariupol, the Germans at Monte Casino, the Russians at Stalingrad. Committed soldiers dug in are able to absorb enormous amounts of punishment.  

However, if you are a solider in a trench or fighting pit being shelled you will normally be at the bottom of it taking cover. While you are taking cover, you aren’t firing your weapons and the enemy is moving towards you.  Immediately, before the attackers enter their own artillery’s danger zone, the barrage stops and they start their assault.  A key aspect of tactical coordination is minimising the time between artillery fire stopping and the assault starting, it is one reason armies use armoured personal carriers.  The vehicle’s armour protects the infantry inside for longer allowing them to get closer to the defending soldiers.

The Russians, certainly have lots of artillery but can they coordinate it effectively?  Historically, poorly coordinated artillery covering fire has killed many people through misadventure. Sometimes by shelling the wrong side or more often by lifting its fire too soon and allowing the defenders a longer time to engage the assaulting force.  It is easy to imagine what it must have been like for the US Marines assaulting Tarawa in 1943, walking across the island’s lagoon when their shelling stopped and silence fell.  It would have been terrifying standing in that lagoon hundreds of metres from cover and knowing that soon, the silence would be broken by enemy machine gun fire.  ‘Bloody Tarawa’ became that battle’s title.  Lacking good leadership and communications makes coordinating artillery fire very difficult.  The Russians can have all the artillery in the world but if they can’t integrate it into an effective combined arms attack it is useless. 

Even in the 21st century, when the artillery finishes its covering fire, it is still the infantry responsible for winning the assault.  Infantry soldier close with the enemy and kill or capture them seizing the enemy’s position and holding it against the inevitable counter-attack.  Tanks and attack-helicopters can’t get into trenches and bunkers and ‘weasel’ out enemy infantry. The only way to do that is with infantrymen fighting at close range with grenades, assault rifles and even bayonets. It is a tough job and one that the Russians don’t appear to have the resources to carry out.

So how will the next few days unfold?

In summary it is unlikely that the Russians will make any significant ground in the next few days or weeks.  We should also consider that for all the noise and fury this may be the Russians probing along a wide front an activity designed to find a weakness in the Ukrainian lines rather than the main attack.  So over next few days, keep watching the following areas:

  • The area around Izium for movements south towards Sloviansk or Kramatorsk which would indicate an attempted envelopment of Ukrainian forces on the Luhansk border.  
  • If on the other hand, the offensive develops more near Rubizhne, Popasna, and Marinka then this is likely to indicate more limited and sensible objectives.  
  • Keep an eye on the south, there is activity reported around Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, this is most likely diversionary activity but may indicate an attempt to secure the Dnieper crossings for possible further action against Odessa.  However, it is unlikely that the Russians have the manpower to do anything significant in this area without winning further east. 
  • Russian strikes will continue on depth targets, like Lviv and Dnipro.  I don’t think these strikes will do much to limit the movement of Ukrainian supplies but will provide propaganda wins for Russia.

In conclusion, the war is entering another stage the battle for the south-east.  If the Ukrainian defence holds, afterwards there may be an opportunity to pursue the defeated Russians and drive them out of Ukraine.  In the unlikely event that the Russians advance a significant distance, defeating the Ukrainian then it could dramatically change the situation.  The Russians then able to pursue the defeated Ukrainians from firm bases in Donetsk and Luhansk.  So, the next few days or weeks are a critical stage in this war. 

Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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